How to Be a Successful Grad Student

Making the decision to attend graduate school isn’t an easy one. It’s a commitment of both time and money. But the benefits of earning your master’s degree or graduate certificate are huge, and go beyond a salary increase or future promotion. (Although those are nice perks, too.)

Grad school offers you access to a new network of peers and mentors. It can help you achieve your personal and professional goals, all while improving your productivity and enhancing your skillset. That is, if you prepare accordingly.

What it means to be a “successful” grad student varies, based on what you want to accomplish. But if you follow the grad school advice below, you’ll be better equipped to make the most of your experience.

Leverage Your Peer Network

A benefit of grad school is that you’re surrounded by likeminded peers who span different industries and stages of their career. Turn to them for inspiration and advice. How do they manage their time? What tools do they use? Are there any job openings at their company or emerging opportunities in the field that you maybe haven’t considered yourself?

Students are accepted to grad school because of the unique strengths they can bring to a program. Determine what yours are and leverage that skill set to help your colleagues. If you’re a strong storyteller, but new to analytics, network with your peers to see who’s more familiar with data and willing to share their expertise. It’s likely they might need your marketing savvy to solve a problem of their own.

In grad school, you should be learning from your classmates as much as you are from your professors.

Seek Out Faculty Mentors

Networking shouldn’t stop at your classmates, though. Your professors want to help, so take the time to learn more about them. Faculty bring decades of shared industry experience to the classroom—use that to your advantage. Learn from their lessons and ask how they’ve applied what they’re teaching out in the field.

The stronger the relationship you have with your professors, the more likely it is they’ll introduce you to other thought leaders in their network, connect you with job opportunities, or serve as a reference when you’re applying to new roles.

Map Out Your Goals Early

Before starting your grad program, write down your goals. Are there specific skills you want to learn? Is there a particular problem you’re trying to solve at work? You should be clear about what you want to get out of the program before enrolling.

Some of this you’ll likely identify during the application process as you’re writing your statement of purpose. In an earlier post on how to write a strong statement of purpose, it was recommended to focus on what drives you, such as professional advancement or personal growth, as well as what it is about the school that interests you most and what your expectations are of the degree.

The earlier you map out your desired trajectory, the easier it will be to identify the classes you should take or the experiences and projects you should seek out during your degree program.

Work on What You’re Passionate About

As you’re mapping out your goals, zero in on what it is you’re passionate about and integrate that into your coursework. For example, if your program involves writing a dissertation, center your research on a topic that matters to you, whether it’s an issue you’re tackling at work or an opportunity in an industry that you’ve always wanted to learn more about.

Your grad program will feel more enjoyable and manageable if you’re working on something that matters to you.

Focus on Learning, Not Grades

Although grades help hold you accountable and can serve as a benchmark, that’s not where your focus should be. You’re at a different stage of your life and career than when you were an undergraduate trying to leverage your grade point average to land a job interview or get into grad school.

Now, you have more to balance and different professional goals. You need to prioritize the learning process and dedicate yourself to retaining information, gaining new experience, and networking with your peers.

Practice Time Management

It’s likely you’re balancing more than just grad school, making time management a must. Spend some time Sunday before the week starts mapping out your assignment deadlines and other commitments, so you can block off the time necessary to complete your work. You might even consider downloading a mobile app that can help you keep track of your to-do list, such as Trello, Any.do, or Wunderlist.

By focusing on boosting your workplace productivity, you can also free up more time to dedicate to grad school.

Strike a Work-Life Balance

Finding work-life balance is easier said than done. But as you’re scheduling out your week, factor in time for fun, whether that’s going to the gym, grabbing dinner with friends, or reading something that’s not a textbook. If you overextend yourself, your work will suffer, and you will have defeated the purpose. You want grad school to help advance your career, not set you back.

And grad school can advance your career: Roughly 18 percent of jobs will require a master’s degree by 2022. What’s more, 41 percent of companies are sending their employees back to school to earn an advanced degree.

The major key to being a successful grad student is keeping your end goals in mind and staying focused on them. Remember, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel; juggling school and work is only temporary. So make the most of your experience while you can. The pay-off will be worth it.


Are you interested in becoming a graduate student? Explore Northeastern’s more than 200 certificate, master’s, and doctoral degree programs.